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It’s a steal

Keeping your scooter safe is harder than ever. Read on for some tips on how not to lose your ride home.

Many stolen scooters end up in the hands of junior bosozoku, who are curiously happy to run red lights, ride tandem (illegal on anything under 125cc), and take to the highways (also reserved for those over 125cc)—but who balk at the idea of stealing and riding anything with a bit more power until they hit 18 years old. The bad boys’ bikes are easy to spot, often sporting a bent-up license plate, or none at all, and occasionally outsized fins, exhausts and spoilers. To keep a scooter safe from this roving band of bike bandits, the best investment a new rider can make, after a high-quality helmet (many of the ones available in discount stores do not meet international safety standards), is a decent lock.

U-bolts are relatively inexpensive but should always be fitted with the keyhole facing down, which makes them harder to mash with a chisel and hammer. No matter how good a lock is fitted, though, increasingly sophisticated thieves have begun using car jacks to pry bars apart and CO2 canisters to freeze tumblers before shattering them with hammers, so avoid dark back streets: it’s better to stick with the main drags and put up with the sticky warning notices from traffic wardens. Better still, invest a couple hundred yen in secure parking near a station.

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Off the beaten path

Honda’s Element harks back to the days when a 4x4’s interior could be washed down with a hose. Justin Gardiner goes for a spin.

The design brief for the Element was simple: make a car for surfers and outdoorsmen. No need for something with enough off-road ability to make it safely across Borneo, but the vehicle should cope with treacherous surfaces and the driver shouldn’t be embarrassed to park between a Jeep and a Land Rover.

The result is as simple as it is unusual. Based on the tried and tested—and extremely popular—Honda Compact Runabout Vehicle (CR-V), the Element boasts squared-off, Jeepish looks. The rugged appearance continues through to the interior. The dash wouldn’t suffer from being cleaned with a scrubbing brush, the seats are made of water-resistant fabric, and the floor is devoid of carpet; tough-looking rubber takes its place. Externally, plastic wings and fenders provide a strong, purposeful look and are practical in that they’re cheap to replace should they get snagged on a tree stump—or, as is more likely, a shopping cart. Somehow, perhaps due to those dark gray wheel wells, the 16” wheels manage to look bigger than they are, lending the Element an off-roader look without the associated ground clearance, which means it’s no harder to get into and out of than a regular family minivan.

Spare, utilitarian interior offers few surprises

Under the hood lurks a 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder gas engine that until now has only been available in North American CR-Vs. The powerplant is good for 160hp, but it lacks the torque of true bush-whacking off-roaders. Typically Honda, the engine revs very high but is, thankfully, not intrusively whiny at highway speeds. In regular conditions, power is fed through the front wheels alone, but if the transmission detects spin, the rear wheels get to share the burden. This works well on loose surfaces, particularly when climbing, but the clever gearbox doesn’t notice when the front wheels have lost grip while braking. This can lead to those sickening straight-on slides on steep downhill ice or mud patches that are a characteristic of front-wheel-drive cars. Unfortunately, 4WD cannot be selected manually—thus, the Element is not a true 4x4—so care should be taken on the return trip from ski slopes.

 

Door story
The most distinctive aspect of the Element’s design is its rear-hinged doors, a la Mazda’s RX-8 and the latest Rolls Royce. Front-hinged doors have been de rigueur since the ’50s, as they’re very difficult to open when a car is at speed, while a clumsy passenger can open a rear-hinged one because the wind will catch it. Thus, the nickname “suicide doors.” The Element gets around this by ensuring that the back doors cannot be opened unless the front ones are already agape. Indeed, the pillar supporting the front seatbelts is incorporated into the rear portal, meaning that when both are opened, there’s no obstruction to entry and egress, making side-loading of awkward shapes (think surfboards) a cinch. Those doors open to almost 90 degrees too, further improving access.

Quirky rear-hinged back doors add a distinctive element

There is a flaw in this plan, though. When trying to load stuff into the car in a tight parking lot, one must, in order to reach the back seat, first open the front door. This means getting trapped in a box between the doors, the Element and the neighboring car. How is one supposed to reach the shopping cart, suitcases, or the person passing the stuff to be loaded? The standard design on vehicles like this involves sliding doors, but Honda’s engineers reckoned such appendages reek of soccer mom minivans†and went out of their way to avoid them. Form over function, apparently.

American motoring journalists have also queried the safety of doors that cannot be opened at any time in the event of an accident. Making matters worse, the Element’s rear windows only roll down a couple of centimeters. Despite the car’s high roofline and airy interior, the back seat area is a claustrophobe’s nightmare.

The back bench itself is divided in two, and after being folded flat can be swung up to the sides of the rear compartment, yielding a rubber-coated deck large enough to swallow a decent-sized bookcase, fridge and washing machine at the same time. The straps holding the seats out of the way are not secured by the plastic hooks common in minivans, but by mountaineering-style carbines. A nice touch, but they do tend to clatter around on the floor when the seats are their regular position. With the head restraints removed, the front seats can also be folded flat, which in combination with the rear provides an almost bump-free, and surprisingly comfy, double bed. Should the occupants still feel the need to sleep outdoors, they can use the one of the two cigar lighter-type power points in the dashboard to run a 12V pump for their airbeds.

The Element’s rugged, utilitarian qualities are a welcome change from the wimpy minivans that dominate Japan’s “off-road” market. But while Honda have achieved their goal of making a vehicle fit for the outdoors, its quirks may dissuade as many buyers as it attracts.

Photos by Justin Gardiner

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Photos by Justin Gardiner